And was the holy Lamb of God,
On Englands pleasant pastures seen!
- And did those feet, William Blake

torsdag 3. mars 2011


Those who know me well enough will attest to my almost complete lack of interest in gossip. The same individuals will also, hopefully, attest to the same lack of interest in celebrities and their sundry scandals. However, when at the core of a scandal and the consequent barrage of gossip you find the prime minister of one of the most politically important countries in Western Europe, I do indeed take interest in the matter.

It should not come as a surprise that I loathe Silvio Berlusconi for a number of reasons, reasons which all pertain to his ineptitude as head of state. What enrages me the most is not the current scandal concerning his sexual activities or his highly dubious liaisons with a number of individuals, but that he quite evidently feels no concern or responsibility for the Italian populace. I could go on and on about this subject, but I feel it would be redundant to elaborate on Berlusconi's shortcomings and trespasses.

In the middle of February I became aware of the case unimaginatively referred to as Rubygate, concerning Berlusconi's affiliation with a teenage sex-worker. Frustrated with the seemingly unfathomable depths of Berlusconi's lack of temperance and sense of duty I began writing a poem reflecting my thoughts on Italy in its current state. I have frequently compared Berlusconi with emperor Commodus on grounds of their egocentric and irresponsible behaviour as leaders of men and women, and gradually this took the form of the poem below. The comparison is not meant as analogy, since as a historian I'm quite hesitant to use analogies that cross vast gaps of time and often inherently ignores historical context. Rather, Commodus serves as an allegory of Berlusconi, ideal to criticise some of the many deplorable aspects of his government. The language and imagery is occasionally very graphic, bordering on disturbing, so the reader should have this in mind before proceeding. Notes will be provided at the end of this blogpost.


For Silvio Berlusconi

A dead deity, Rome's deceased lion,
Whose grim visage louring over the city
Like a ghost to devour its scion
Predicts the ruin of faith and pity.

A composite beast, sea-horse, locust-king,
Lion; winged scaly foeman of the free,
Whose vast and outstretched body darkness brings
As he hovers above poor Italy.

 Remnant of a statue ostensibly depicting a hippocampus, Yorkshire Museum


Some beasts return with smiting force
After centuries of solitude.
Surfacing like a fierce sea-horse
Commodus wades ashore; the nude
Body aches from abstinence "My whores!"
He shouts, yearning his plenitude,
Those imperial perks. His flesh
Quivers as his hands loudly thresh.

The country cries: "He is reborn!"
And Commodus, the locust-king,
Sweeps through the land and leaves it torn
Between the awed and huddled. "Sing,
O Lion! Locust, reap the corn
Of Juno in thy harrowing!"
"Yield me your virgins!" said the beast,
Summoning the sacrificial feast.


Emperor Commodus, tired of mirrors,
Ordered a lake to be made at whose shore
He laid down his purple tunic and stared
In phallic rapture, then would he despair:
"There is too little time on earth for men,
What I here raise up will soon be dust again.
If I am to stay strong and never die
I must display my strength and multiply."

And so, in search for immortality,
He made a looking-glass of Italy
That the land would mirror his carnality.


Unbridled lust unleashed, a Roman orgy
To give this country back its golden days
And keep its princes thoroughly engorged; be
It gold or girls, all comes to him who pays.

Behold their naked bodies, see their limbs
Sprawled in a game of brute carnality,
See how their perfumed necks are amber-rimmed
And smell the scent of flesh salt as the sea.

Like animated statues do they move,
Euphoric, maddened by the weight of gold
Displayed throughout his palace; is this love?
No, the maidens are afraid and he is old.

The king roars at the spilling of his seed,
It falls on barren ground, the subjects cheer;
Some wish to imitate his manly deed,
The harlots coil around the naked peers.


An old lion in a borrowed hide
Tups the young impatient lioness
To keep his throne. The carnal bride
Writhes in the blood's forgetfulness.

Lust that singes hearts to keep them hot
Burns in this two-backed beast, its fire
Purges minds until sins are forgot'
And they succumb to his desire.


Carnalia made public for the state,
Emperor, beast and lust's gladiator;
The copulating Commodus the Great
Prays to Priapus the mediator.

Carnalia, a matter of the state
As offices are sold for harlotry,
The Kingdom holds its breath as it awaits
Its forced descent into pornocracy.

Carnalia, the essence of the state,
A country for old men pursuing lust;
Young women turn to harlots to placate
The vibrant emperor and gain his trust.


Perennial plunderer, we have endured
Your leprous soul too long, the crumbling land
Is tainted and infected by your hand,
The streets are littered with the lives you lured
With promises of splendour. Now, obscured
By your smothering shadow, prospects planned
Dissolve before their eyes, they understand
They have your illness and can not be cured.
You stalk this country like a dark disease,
A locust-king that leaves a barren field;
When will your leprous children rise to seize
Your throne, and in their rising, will you yield?
The sceptre in your hand will not appease
The hungered horde that arms of justice wields. 

- York, February 15 - March 02 2011


The Emblem

My point here is to combine some bestial aspects I find suitable for the Commodus/Berlusconi composite in a manner that reflect his aspects.

I chose the sea-horse partly because I liked the image of him resurfacing after centuries in some unspecified exile, partly because the sea-horse has subtle sexual connotations in Jeanette Winterson's excellent novel Lighthousekeeping.

The lion - instead of the more typically Roman eagle - stems from the bust of Commodus depicted as Hercules wearing the hide of the Nemean lion. Also I find its royal connotations fitting due to the image of Berlusconi as a virtual king of Italy.

Due to his - in my opinion - destructive effect on Italy, both with regards to the political system and the national discord, I decided on the locust-king as a third image.

Weaving these three beasts together to represent Berlusconi in my mind results in the following composition: A locust's head and wings, a lion's body and a sea-horse's tail.

Commodus Reborn

Technically I have here weaved together two strands of satire, or at least irony, from the early modern Europe. The stanza is taken from Orlando Furioso, Ludovico Ariosto's continuation of Matteo Boiardo's epic romance Orlando Innamorato. Ariostos's work in its ultimate version was published in 1532 and the romance is written with an ironic undertone that made me consider it apt in this context. The metric scheme of iambic tetrameter is taken from Andrew Marvell's subtle satire The Nymph Complaining the Death of Her Fawn. It is also found later in some of Swift's satirical writings, such as The Lady's Dressing Room.

Those imperial perks: Commodus had a harem of 300 boys and 300 girls. To my knowledge Berlusconi has not reached that level. At least not yet.

The corn of Juno: Whereas an ordinary locust would reap the corn of Ceres, the Roman goddess of agriculture, this locust-king reaps the corn of Juno, which may designate the daughters of Italy or the wives in the country, since Juno was the Roman goddess of marriage. 

The Fable of the Mirror

This is a narration based on the legend of Narcissus and pertains both to Berlusconi's evident self-obsession and to the fact that Commodus was killed by his personal wrestling partner who was called Narcissus.

Purple tunic: This is not a Classical Roman costume, although the high-ranking members of Roman society had togas with a purple stripe along its edge. A tunic rather suggests the post-Roman, or post-Classical, Europe ruled by various Germanic kings, an imagery connected to the sequence Gothic Epithalamium.


The title is taken from Ovidius' famous work and hints to the many parties arranged by Berlusconi in his private villa, which is the setting of this sequence.

Gothic Epithalamium

It is said that in Gothic Italy it was customary for the king to perform the nuptial rites in a bed amidst the Gothic nobles, presumably to display the king's virility. Whether this is true I do not know, but I have used this idea to illustrate the deplorable fact that many people are impressed and charmed by Berlusconi's libido and much of his popularity rests on his sexual activities. 

An epithalamium is a nuptial song aimed at the pleasures of the bridal chamber. One of the most famous examples of the form is Spenser's Epithalamion from 1595 written for his bride Elizabeth Boyle in an outstanding display of technical prowess.

Res Publica

The title means "The Matters of the People" and in this sense points to the fact that Berlusconi's sexuality has become a matter of the Italian state and also has severe ramifications for the government. Particularly I'm thinking here of Berlusconi's habit of giving political posts to young attractive women, for instance the former model Mara Carfagna who is now Minister for Equal Opportunity.

Lust's gladiator: Commodus had a strong fascination for gladiators and frequently dressed himself as one. Since gladiators were slaves and base entertainers it was a shocking sight to the citizens of Rome encountering their emperor dressed in slave attire walking the streets. Due to his fascination - or mania - he turned parts of his imperial palace into a gladiator theatre and often performed his prowess at public games. It is noted that he on one occasion killed a thousand bears, and one can only imagine the chained animals receiving stab after stab by an egomaniacal fake gladiator.

Priapus: A Greek god of fertility often depicted with an oversized penis. 
Pornocracy: A term of 19th century German, theological scholarship pertaining to the period 904-964, a time when the Papal See was controlled by the mighty Theophylacti family. Many of the key power dealers were women - mothers and aunts, and purportedly mistresses, of the popes, and the term means "rule of the harlots". Personally I think the term is more pertinent in regard to modern-day Italy. 

A country for old men: A reversal of Yeats' famous phrase opening his poem Sailing to Byzantium. The idea here is that modern-day Italy is the opposite of the once so glorious Byzantine Empire, it lacks the Eastern Roman/Greek splendour and it is a land where one man has ruled for a significantly longer amount of time than most emperors of Byzantium did. The image also has moral implications since Byzantium was a Christian empire - although many unchristian things occurred under the auspices of emperors - whereas the government of Berlusconi does not excel in Christian temperance or chastity, despite Berlusconi's occasional attempts to smooth over his strained relationship with the Catholic church. 

Gestae Commodi

The title is an imitation of Augustus' funerary inscription Res Gestae Divi Augusti, meaning the deeds of the divine Augustus. The title has influenced several Medieval historiographical writings, such as William of Malmesbury's 12th century Gesta Regum Anglorum. The sequence is a Petrarchan sonnet which I find to be suitably ironic considering this form originated as love poetry. 

The sceptre in your hand:  As one frequently stumbles upon in the notes of RSC's Complete Works of William Shakespeare: with phallic connotations.

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